- New Eighteenth Centuries
Sooner or later, we scholars and critics are dated. An essay called "A History of the Future" might try to predict what will happen in eighteenth-century studies, but soon enough becomes a souvenir of the moment when it was written (or perhaps a moment before).1 A book called The New Eighteenth Century eventually fits on a shelf with other relics of newness, like the old New Criticism. If we are lucky, some remnants survive; a few New Critics are breathing still. But making their innovations seem fresh again depends on recreating the contexts that once gave them life. At one time, we have to remember, the past was new.
When The New Eighteenth Century was new, in 1987, I was taken aback by what its introductory essay said about my history of the future. For one thing, "The" was substituted for the "A" in my title. To write the history of the future, as if a crystal ball could be definitive, would be preposterous. Moreover, the error reproduced the most objectionable word in the editors' own title: The. New eighteenth centuries had always been plentiful, beginning in the eighteenth century itself, but a book that purported to contain the new eighteenth century (in its 1987 version) was bound to overlook a great many other versions.2 And the editors compounded that error when they claimed that I seemed "caught" between my "passion for the new" and "fear of it."3 Some new things deserve our passion, some do not. My essay does not recognize the categorical new, which squeezes the heads of a hydra into one "it"; nor did I ever join the party of the New Historicism.
Perhaps a herald of the new needs always to rewrite the past. That was certainly true of my own history of the future. It responded to a particular situation. In 1972 the English Institute had launched a series on New Approaches to Eighteenth-Century Literature, which began with four talks. The results distressed Paul de Man, who chaired the Institute in 1973. The approaches had struck him as not very new, and one of them, Donald Greene's "The Study of Eighteenth-Century Literature: Past, Present, and Future," bristled with what would later be [End Page 327] called the resistance to theory. De Man asked me to organize another session and open my own talk to new approaches. The assignment appealed to me, not only because the time was ripe for a sea change in eighteenth-century studies, cued by the founding of ASECS in 1969, but also because I had recently taken over as editor of "The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century" in the popular Norton Anthology of English Literature. At that time the canon seemed stultified—not a single woman author in the whole first volume of the anthology (2,000 pages), no reference to slavery or empire or the class system, no hint of the revolutions brewing both then and now. There was an obvious need for fresh air. In the third edition (1974) I was allowed some timid additions: Anne Finch, a bit of sex from Rochester, Johnson's "Brief to Free a Slave," Smart's "My Cat Jeoffry," Burke on the American Revolution. But clearly the rigid notion of "English Literature" was ready to be rethought. What might it be in the future?
Rereading my talk now, more than four decades later, I find it dated in many ways. Its pronouns, for instance, assume that authors and scholars are men (save for one reference to "men and women"). It tends to focus on what was then the received canon of English literature (later editions of the Norton Anthology would venture far outside). It limits its excursions into theory, except for Foucault (more than one person has told me that my talk was the first time they heard about him). But most of all, it subscribes to a humanistic vision of progress, not only in scholarship but also in the stories that scholars tell about the eighteenth century itself, whose radical changes in society and art are credited with provoking ideas that still inspire hope for a better world.